The Granville Bridge in Vancouver was built in 1954, and it has been both a blight and an architectural element of the city since.
The bridge, a hulking six-lane mass of concrete, altered Granville Street on both sides of False Creek, turning it into a highway through the city and transforming streets underneath it into caves. But starting in 1972, the bridge also became a distinctive feature of one of the city's most successful public spaces, Granville Island.
That federal-government-owned chunk of land under the south side of the bridge, a former industrial zone, now combines food markets, artisan shops, restaurants, an art school, studios and two theatres under the bridge's soaring car deck and massive concrete supports.
Now, a Vancouver developer is planning to transform the north end of the bridge – at one of the shadowed intersections, Beach and Howe – in an equally dramatic way.
Not only has Ian Gillespie of Westbank Developments brought in a hot-shot European architect – the young, playful and innovative Bjarke Ingels and his firm BIG – to design one of the most distinctive towers Vancouver has seen in a long time for his site that presses up against the bridge.
But Mr. Gillespie also has ambitious plans to create a Granville Island-like mix of shops, passageways, courtyards and outdoor public spaces among a cluster of triangle-shaped lower buildings that will fit in gaps between the bridge and its exit and entry ramps.
To cap it all off, he wants to create an unusual outdoor art gallery that would define that new market area.
Mr. Gillespie, who collects the work of Vancouver's renowned circle of photo-conceptual artists, wants to put photographs in lightboxes attached to the underside of the bridge – an idea that impressed Mr. Ingels.
"It's like a Sistine Chapel," the architect said in Vancouver recently, as he presided over a crowded open house for the tower project that drew far more design and architecture nerds than any future neighbours. "It highlights the intention of this project to capture the infrastructural elements here. It's all about trying to deal with that."
The tower, a 52-storey-high cantilevered building that curves away from the bridge, will create a distinctive new entrance to Vancouver's downtown. Mr. Ingels has also covered the building in a lattice-work of balconies that will incorporate bronze trim, giving it a metallic sheen.
That modern, metallic look deliberately plays off the grittiness of the big concrete bridge.
It's also dramatically different from the standard all-glass look that has dominated Vancouver condo towers during the past 25 years of booming construction, as city planners deliberately encouraged a more residential downtown.
Hiring Mr. Ingels was an unusual and deliberate choice by Mr. Gillespie, who says he is trying to spur more innovation in the city's architecture. While Vancouver's massive expansion of downtown living has prompted the admiration of city planners around the world, it has also produced criticism that the forest of condo towers is bland and monotonous.
Mr. Ingels, who has rocketed to fame since he started his own architecture firm in 2006, already knew Vancouver and liked its look, unusual for North America or Europe.
"I was pretty blown away by the incredible city of glass," Mr. Ingels said. "But the idea of urban density here has been very narrowly defined."
But Vancouverism had been simplified, for many, to mean a podium of townhouses, with a slim, glass tower above. Mr. Ingels saw a way to take the original idea and move it forward.
Mr. Ingels's tower turns the usual Vancouver model on its head. Instead of a narrow "point" tower that disappears into the sky – the typical form here – he has created a tower that sits on a small base and then broadens out as it rises.
It's been a difficult site to work with because of the bridge, the ramps, and the slope. As well, the city has special requirements for the few buildings it allows to go above its standard height limits. The tall-building policy demands that projects like this one demonstrate that they are architecturally superior and that they enhance the skyline.
But that, Mr. Ingels said, is the kind of challenge he likes. Unlike some architects, whose buildings all fall into a recognizable look, Mr. Ingels prefers to design buildings that respond to the environment around them. He also likes to have fun with his buildings. A recent project, a waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen, will have a ski slope incorporated into it.
He has described the Vancouver project, in his official statement to the city, as "a contemporary descendant of the Flatiron building in New York city."
So far, Mr. Ingels has had a warm welcome in Vancouver, at least from the architecture community. His project has received glowing praise from the city's urban design panel in both rounds of review. It still needs to go through a public hearing and council approval.
Business owners on the downtown stretch of Granville Street are also hopeful the project will create new life and a new identity for that part of the street, which used to be home to lower-end hotels, sex-toy shops and clubs.
"It will help to connect and build on that part of the street," said Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.
There are still many practical hurdles to jump, though.
The project sits on a slope with a 7-per-cent grade, which means Mr. Ingels and his team have to come up with unique designs for ground-floor shops so that people can enter at various levels.
Mr. Gillespie's idea of an outdoor art gallery above the street – a street that will function sometimes like a public plaza, sometimes like a road – is also challenging.
And finding the retailers who want to operate in triangular spaces under a bridge will take some creativity, he admits.
"The geometry is difficult for most retailers. The idea is you have to find someone who is willing to break out of that box. It is a little more eclectic."
Mr. Gillespie has a history of pulling off eclectic. He developed the city's famous Woodward's project, which took an old hulk of a department store and remade it into two towers, a university arts department, an office building in the oldest part of the historic store, and a courtyard that is split between an indoor and outdoor plaza.
Projects like that aren't easy and they don't bring home the usual developer's slice of the profit, Mr. Gillespie said.
"I know I am going to have to leave a few dollars on the table here."